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Companies hit out at potential UK online junk food ad ban

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KRAKOW, POLAND - 2020/11/12: People wearing face masks as a precaution walking past the Mcdonald's closed store in Florianska street during the covid-19 pandemic. Poland is now passing through the second wave of coronavirus and introduces new restrictive measures such as the closure of stores inside shopping malls, gatherings with a maximum of 5 people, bars and restaurants operating on a takeaway basis among others. Poland has registered more than 615,000 COVID-19 infections and a death toll above 8000. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
When the potential ban was announced, the move was criticised as being harmful for businesses already struggling to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Big name players in the UK food industry have come out against a plan by the government that may see all online junk food advertising banned, in a bid to tackle childhood obesity.

A letter sent to prime minister Boris Johnson from a cohort of firms including Britvic, Kellogg’s and Mars said they supported efforts to tackle obesity, but plans were “disproportionate” and lacking in evidence.

The plan may usher in some of the world’s toughest digital marketing restrictions, which would hit by the end of 2022.

The letter, signed by 800 food and drink manufacturers and 3,000 UK brands, says food companies have not been given enough time to submit detailed objections.

It also argues: “There is still no agreed definition of which foods the government is including in these proposals.

"They are so broad they even capture family favourites from chocolate to peanut butter to sausage rolls."

When the potential ban was announced, the move was criticised as being harmful for businesses already struggling to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

READ MORE: Business set for more uncertainty as tiered lockdowns loom for England

A statement released by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in November cited research as showing that children are exposed to over 15 billion ads for unhealthy food online every year.

The statement said exposure to such advertising can affect children’s eating habits, both in the short term by increasing the amount of food children eat immediately after being exposed to an ad, and in the longer term by shaping their food preferences.

The government has said obesity is one of the biggest health crises the country faces. Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6bn ($8bn) a year.

It added that obesity puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19: Nearly 8% of critically ill patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population.

Johnson is said to have changed tack on obesity after being hospitalised with COVID-19, something he has linked to being overweight.

READ MORE: TV channels bristle at prospect of Johnson's junk food ad ban

The struggle between government and companies on this issue has flared up in recent months, with TV channels having said in July that they would forced to make cuts of more than £200m to programme budgets if such a ban came into play.

It was reported at the time that if a junk food advertising ban were implemented for pre-watershed TV, ITV would be in line to lose about £100m ($133m) of income.

Channel 4 would also suffer an estimated £40m annual blow, which is nearly a tenth of its programming budget for the year.

Watch: What is the budget deficit and why does it matter?

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